We’re only one week away from everyone’s favorite gastronomic holiday: Thanksgiving. Even people who aren’t regular wine drinkers like to serve wine with holiday dinners, and people who are regular wine drinkers sometimes like to splurge a bit and enjoy a special bottle of wine. But the world of wine can be overwhelming, so I’m here to help narrow the field for you with a few recommendations that will please your palate and your guests.
Thanksgiving is all about food, specifically, turkey and its traditional accompaniments. The first rule of pairing wine with food is to match light food with light wine and heavy food with heavy wine. This is why a nice, juicy steak tastes best with a rich, hearty Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, and why buttery scallops taste best with a zesty, crisp Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling.
You may often rely on the old wine adage: white wine with seafood and white meat; red wine with red meat. That will suit in most cases, but if you hew too closely to that guideline, you will miss out on some spectacular pairings. Some main courses pair beautifully with either white or red wine, and turkey is one of those.
Turkey falls somewhat toward the middle on the light–heavy spectrum. It’s heavier than a white fish or shellfish, but not as heavy as steak or other red meat. Therefore you want a wine that also falls in the middle of the spectrum. I found this useful graphic at calibermag.org to illustrate (click to enlarge):
With turkey, you want to choose from the Rich White, Sparkling, and Light Red categories. I’ll provide a few recommendations from each category.
If you like big, buttery, oaky Chardonnay then this is your lucky day. This type of Chardonnay is an excellent match for turkey. You can go big with a California Chardonnay, or choose a more refined white Burgundy from France. (Chardonnay is the exclusive white grape of the Burgundy region. Although the label is unlikely to say “Chardonnay,” if you’re holding a bottle of white wine that says “Burgundy” or “Bourgogne” then it’s Chardonnay.)
White wines should be well chilled before serving. You want a temperature of about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, which can be achieved by chilling the wine in the refrigerator for about 3 hours, or the freezer for about 1 hour. If you’re in a hurry, a bottle will chill to the proper temperature in only 20 minutes if you put it in an ice-water bath.
2012 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Columbia Valley. This wine averages $9 a bottle and was given a rating of 90 points (of a possible 100) by Wine Spectator. That’s a very impressive rating for a wine in this price range–something you don’t see too often. From the winery: “opens with rich fruit aromas of apples, melons, and pears, joined by signature notes of caramelized sugar and butterscotch . . . enhanced by buttery characters and lively acidity.”
2012 Louis Jadot Mâcon-Villages. If you’re looking for a bargain French white, look no further than Maison Louis Jadot. They produce a LOT of wine and are therefore able to keep their prices rather low. This wine averages $14 but is often on sale. From the winery: “Dry and easy to drink, lively and charming, this is a fruity wine with a floral scent and a hint of lemon.”
2012 Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Sonoma County. The winery is now offering the 2013 vintage, but most stores should still have the 2012 on the shelf. The average price is $19, but it can be easily acquired for $15-16. Aging in French oak barrels imparts notes of vanilla and spice. From the winery: “the wine is both creamy and crisp, with golden delicious yellow apple, baked pie spices, and a hint of minerality on the long finish.”
2012 Bouchard Père et Fils Meursault Les Clous. For a splurge, I heartily recommend this French white from Burgundy. Its average price is $51, and that’s a typical price point for a fine white Burgundy. The wine is both floral and fruity and has a subtle acidity that pairs well with food.
If you’re not a Chardonnay fan but you still want a white wine, look no further than the Rhône Valley varietals: Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier. If you see a white wine labeled Côte-Rotie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, or St-Joseph, that means it’s a northern Rhône wine. Southern Rhône appellations include Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Costières de Nîmes. The label is unlikely to tell you which grapes and in which percentages were used to make the wine (ah, the French), but the chances are good that it will be Viognier or some sort of Marsanne-Roussanne blend. Here are a couple of recommendations.
2011 E. Guigal Hermitage Blanc. With an average price of $47, this isn’t exactly a value wine, but it is a delightful blend of 95% Marsanne and 5% Roussanne. It’s floral and spicy with notes of acacia honey, balanced acidity, and a structure well suited to food pairings.
2012 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône White. With an average price of $14, this option is much more budget-friendly, while still benefitting from the fine craftsmanship of E. Guigal. The wine is a blend of 65% Viognier, 15% Roussanne, 10% Marsanne, 8% Clairette, and 2% Bourboulanc. It’s fresh and fruity with notes of white flowers, acacia, white apricot, and peach.
2013 Famille Perrin Côtes du Rhône Blanc. Another great bargain option is Famille Perrin, an offshoot of the legendary Beaucastel winemaking family, with an average price of $11. It’s a blend of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. From the winery: “Beautiful bright and shiny colour with green undertones. Floral nose and delicate notes of white-flesh fruit (apple and peach), great aromatic freshness. The mouth is rich and balanced, with great minerality. The finish is long and persistent.”
Many people only break out the bubbly when they’re celebrating something, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: sparkling wines are the most food-friendly wines out there. No matter what you are serving, sparkling wine will complement it. Sparkling wine should be served at the same temperature as white–45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sparkling wine is available at all price points. Champagne, which is only made in the Champagne region of France, is the most expensive. Prices for Champagne start around $40 and go up from there into the hundreds of dollars. Vintage Champagne (made only with grapes from a particular year) will always be more expensive than non-vintage Champagne. If there’s no year on the label, you know it’s a non-vintage Champagne. Champagne is made from three types of grape: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
California sparkling wine is generally made in the same method as Champagne, and often from the same grape varietals. Prices for California sparkling start around $8 and go up to $40 or $50. Cava (from Spain) and Prosecco (from Italy) are made with grapes indigenous to those countries. Good Cava and Prosecco are easily found in the under-$15 category.
Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut Cava. First things first: it’s pronounced fresh-a-net. With an average price of $11, this is my go-to sparkler for making cocktails, but it’s also great as a stand-alone. From the winery: “The fresh palate of apple, ripe pear and bright citrus flavors combine with a long finish and an exciting touch of ginger.” If you want a sparkling wine that won’t break the bank, look for the black bottle.
Gloria Ferrer Brut, Blanc de Blancs, or Blanc de Noirs. Blanc de Blancs is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes, while Blanc de Noirs is made entirely (or predominantly) from Pinot Noir grapes. Brut is a blend of grapes. Use your taste in still wines to guide you here. If you love Pinot Noir, Blanc de Noirs is likely to be a favorite for you as well. These wines average $19, but they are very easy to find on sale in the $14-16 range. The Blanc de Noirs is “forward and sweet in raspberries, strawberries and vanilla, with hints of brioche, white chocolate and buttered toast.” The Sonoma Brut features “bright aromas of raspberry and baked apple, with balanced, zesty pear, cinnamon and yeast flavors.” And the Blanc de Blancs has “an aromatic bouquet of blood oranges, green apples and toasty brioche.”
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut. With an average price of $36, Nicolas Feuillatte is a great brand if you want real Champagne but don’t want to spend a bundle. They keep their prices low not by skimping on quality or process, but by mechanizing their entire facility. Champagne can be a bit off-putting for people used to drinking American wines because of the flinty, minerally taste that is a result of the terroir (the dirt or earth) of Champagne. I like Nicolas Feuillatte because it keeps that flintiness to a minimum. From the winery: “Intense floral and white fruit aromas, developing notes of honeysuckle, pear and sweet citrus fruits.”
Moët et Chandon Brut Imperial. For more of a classic, flinty Champagne, I recommend Moët & Chandon (pronounced Mowette because Mr. Moët was Dutch, not French). Its average price is $48, but I’ve never paid more than $42 for it. I have a soft spot for it because it’s the Champagne my husband and I were drinking the night we got engaged, but it really is a fantastic Champagne. From the winery: “vibrant intensity of green apple and citrus fruit; freshness of mineral nuances and white flowers; delicious sumptuousness of white-fleshed fruits; soft vivacity of citrus fruit.”
My absolute favorite wine pairing with turkey dinner is Pinot Noir. It’s a supple wine that can be whatever you need it to be. The red fruit characteristics complement all the various food flavors in a Thanksgiving feast. The mild acidity brings out the juiciness of the bird, while the delicate tannins play well with vegetable side dishes. Pinots with a bit of earthiness can carry you straight through the meal and into dessert, matched with pumpkin or pecan pie.
My recommendations are Pinot-heavy, with one notable exception: Beaujolais Nouveau. Beaujolais is the southernmost wine district of Burgundy, but you won’t see its wines labeled as Burgundy or Bourgogne. It’s the only part of Burgundy where the red grape isn’t Pinot Noir, it’s Gamay. The Gamay grape is lighter and more fruit-forward than Pinot Noir, and often the wines of Beaujolais are meant to be drunk young (relatively soon after harvest and bottling).
Beaujolais Nouveau, literally “New Beaujolais,” is perhaps the best known of the wines produced in Beaujolais, especially among casual wine drinkers. You may recall seeing large displays of Beaujolais Nouveau in your local wine shop or grocery store just before Thanksgiving each year. That’s because under French law, the current vintage is always released on the third Thursday in November, just in time for our quintessential American holiday. And Beaujolais Nouveau is the rare instance where the current vintage is also the current year.
Most grapes are harvested in the late summer or early fall, processed, and aged for a year or more before bottling and release to the public. Not the Beaujolais Nouveau. Those grapes go from harvest to store shelf in a matter of weeks. Without the extensive aging that takes place with most wines, the Beaujolais Nouveau is less structured, less tannic, and fruitier–and meant to be drunk immediately or in the near future. My rule of thumb is to make sure all my Beaujolais Nouveau is drunk before the next vintage is released.
Red wine should be served at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which can be achieved through 2 1/2 hours in the refrigerator, 40 minutes in the freezer, or 10 minutes in an ice-water bath. Unless you are storing your wines in an underground cellar, you should chill your reds in some manner before serving. Room temperature is too warm!
2014 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau. Georges Duboeuf isn’t the only producer of Beaujolais Nouveau, but they are the most common in stores and, therefore, the one I usually buy. If you see another Beaujolais Nouveau, by all means, pick it up. (And if you see Beaujolais Villages, that’s a more structured, aged Beaujolais. It will also be a lovely Thanksgiving pairing, but will cost a bit more and will hold several years in your cellar.)
Beaujolais Nouveau is typically inexpensive–it averages $11 a bottle, but I’ve never paid more than $8 for a bottle. It’s typically bursting with red fruit and berry flavors, and has intense acidity with no finish to speak of. It’s a fun wine, as opposed to a fine wine. I like to have a bottle open early in the day, while the feast is still being prepared. Then I move on to Pinot for the main event.
2012 Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir. This is the Pinot Noir that we chose to serve at our wedding. If you can’t find the 2012, the 2013 vintage is also excellent. Its average price of $20 is practically a steal for great California Pinot, where prices in the $30-50 range are not uncommon.
Meiomi is a blend of grapes from three counties: Sonoma, Monterey, and Santa Barbara. It’s crafted to be food-friendly and approachable, with soft fruits and gentle tannins. The balanced acidity and velvety mouthfeel make it equally quaffable on its own.
2012 Erath Pinot Noir. If you want a more intense Pinot experience, I recommend the Erath from Oregon. The 2012 is on shelves now, but if you see a 2011, it’s even better. The wine averages $19, which once again is a very respectable price for a quality Oregon Pinot.
Oregon has a very similar climate to Burgundy, so many people feel that Oregon Pinots come closer to the French style than California Pinots do. This wine has an earthiness that makes it a match for very different foods. I had it on back-to-back nights with chicken and mushroom risotto and spaghetti with a sausage marinara sauce, and it was delightful with both. From the winery: “Black cherry, juicy plum and Campari aromas meld with slight meatiness and warm yeastiness.”
Louis Jadot Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Combe aux Moins. In the splurge category is a première cru from the Gevrey-Chambertin commune of the Côte de Nuits appellation of the Burgundy wine region. Gevrey-Chambertin is broken out into named parcels; this wine is from the Combe aux Moins parcel.
From the winery: “deep color, with a multi-faceted berry and red fruit bouquet, a full, tannic structure and mellow texture carry into a lasting finish.” I didn’t choose a particular vintage for this wine because it’s expensive, with an average price of $76, and can be hard to find. The best recent vintages from the Côte de Nuits have been 2010, 2009, 2003, and 2002, scoring 94, 95, 93, and 96 respectively from Wine Spectator. Any one of these vintages would be a stellar addition to your Thanksgiving table.
Feel free to share your Thanksgiving wine choices in the comments. Happy Thanksgiving!